Conrad Murray: Michael Jackson case and celebrities' doctors

Prosecutors say they'll file charges Monday against Dr. Conrad Murray in the death of pop star Michael Jackson. The case focuses attention on how celebrities like the late Heath Ledger, Anna Nicole Smith, and Brittany Murphy may get special treatment from physicians.

By , Staff writer

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    Dr. Conrad Murray, left, the cardiologist under investigation in the death of pop star Michael Jackson, greeting a supporter as he arrives at his clinic in Houston in November. Authorities say charges will be filed against Murray on Monday.
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However the legal case against Dr. Conrad Murray proceeds, legal experts say the case will have major impact, perhaps setting legal precedents. Dr. Murray is the physician who told police he gave pop star Michael Jackson a powerful anesthetic and other sedatives in the hours before his death last June.

The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office said Friday it would file charges against Murray on Monday.

The legal gamesmanship over Murray’s surrender followed several days of negotiations in which his lawyers tried to arrange with prosecutors the terms of the doctor's booking and arraignment. Those plans were derailed by haggling between prosecutors and law enforcement officials over whether Murray should be arrested or be allowed to turn himself in.

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Murray’s attorneys have said they expect the Texas cardiologist to be charged with involuntary manslaughter for administering drugs to Jackson before his death on June 25. The sentence would be two to four years, aside from other considerations that could include temporary or permanent loss of license. Attorneys familiar with such cases say Murray’s career as a doctor is probably finished, no matter what is decided in court. Others are not so sure.

How strong is the D.A.'s case?

“It’s very interesting to me that the Los Angeles D.A. [district attorney] has not proceeded by way of indictment but is rather serving a criminal complaint,” says Joseph DiBenedetto, a criminal attorney who has represented several high-profile clients in drug-related cases. “It says to me that they were worried that they have potentially weak evidence and feared that a grand jury would not indict or would be swayed by their own bias in the case.”

Whether or not the case goes to trial, it could have a chastening effect on the doctors of celebrities who sometimes accede to their clients’ request for prescription drugs, despite their own medical judgment. It will open to public scrutiny such legal issues as involuntary manslaughter, criminal negligence, and the tactic of using medical experts. It will shine the spotlight on the responsibilities of doctors to act in their patients’ best interest, regardless of fame or profession.

“Because of the fame of Michael Jackson, this case will be scrutinized by medical licensing boards across the country and will help define the terms due diligence, gross negligence,” says Pace University professor Elizabeth Fentiman, a fellow of the New York Academy of Medicine and a member of the American Society of Law, Medicine, and Ethics. “It will also say to physicians, you need to be careful not just with the potent effects of these anesthetic drugs, but also with their interactive effects with other drugs.”

That will, in turn, spotlight the medical procedures in determining the use of other drugs, the history of the patient in the use of such drugs, the databases that contain such information, and the interconnectivity of such databases.

Murray gave Jackson powerful sedatives

Murray prescribed the powerful anesthetic propofol, which is usually administered only in hospital settings. He told police on Friday that he gave Jackson the sedative and other sedatives but nothing that should have killed him.

And, like other high-profile trials of celebrities, such as O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson himself in 2001, this episode could test the fairness of the legal system in such matters as jury selection and jury sequestration.

“When and if this goes to trial, the D.A.’s office is going to have difficulty assembling 12 jurors who have not seen Michael Jackson waste away before our eyes,” says Elizabeth Kelley, a Cleveland-based criminal attorney. “And virtually everyone in the country has already heard about his various addictions.”

The D.A.’s interest in this case has been fueled precisely because of Jackson’s fame, say Ms. Kelley and several others.

A message of deterrence

“Clearly, the D.A.’s office wanted to send a message of deterrence,” says Kelley. “If Dr. Murray were an ordinary doctor and Michael Jackson just an ordinary person, I doubt whether he would have had such an interest in this case. But there was certainly public pressure.”

Among the many lessons already taken from Jackson's death and the drug-related deaths of several other celebrities – Heath Ledger, Anna Nicole Smith, and, possibly, Brittany Murphy – is that big money can effect and perhaps corrupt the doctor-patient relationship, experts say.

“We’re learning that celebrities, like the rest of the population, struggle with addiction and sometimes fail to take care of themselves,” says Jessica Levinson, adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School. “Unlike the rest of the population, celebrities may have easier access to doctors willing to give them what they want.”

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